Monday, July 13, 2015

Franklin Fire District pays $200,000 to settle employee harassment/retaliation claim.

On July 10, 2015 the Franklin Township (Somerset County) Fire District No. 1 agreed to pay $200,000 to its former administrative aide who sued the Fire District and three District officials for creating a hostile work environment because of her previously filed and settled lawsuit against the Fire District centering on conduct allegedly committed by former District Board Chairman Robert R. Scheer, Jr.

By way of background, the former Administrative Aid, Deborah Nelson, sued the District, Millstone Valley Fire Department, Scheer and Commissioners James Wickman, Joseph Danielsen and William H. Cullen III on November 19, 2009.  That lawsuit, bearing Docket No. SOM-L-2127-09, is on-line here.  That lawsuit settled in May 2011 with Nelson receiving a payment of $150,000 and Robert Scheer agreeing to resign as a Millstone Valley auxiliary member, not seek membership in a District No. 1 fire company, not to run for Commissioner ever again and not to attend District and fire company events where Nelson will be present.  The settlement agreement is online here.

In her more recent lawsuit, filed on February 14, 2013 and bearing Docket No. SOM-L-232-13, Nelson said that after she filed her first lawsuit (which alleged that Scheer had engaged in sexual harassing behavior and that Wickman, Danielsen and Cullen ignored her complaints about it), she "began to experience subtle harassment by certain Commissioners and members of the fire companies who were aligned with and sympathetic to Commissioner Scheer."  She claimed that the harassment intensified when Scheer's daughter-in-law, Melissa Kosensky-Scheer was elected as a Fire Commissioner.

Specifically, Nelson claimed that Commissioner Wickman asked her, during a public meeting, if she had an "emotional attachment" to the District office's paper shredder that was previously used to shred pornography that Scheer had allegedly printed out on the office printer. She also claimed that Louis Hajdu-Nemeth, who served as Board chairman in 2010, directed her to address her complaints solely to him but then refused to meet with her to discuss her complaints.  She complained, generally, of a "good old boy" network in the District.

Central to Nelson's complaint was the alleged conduct of Millstone Valley Fire Department Captain Douglas Walp.  Walp had allegedly made a "specific death threat" against Nelson on or about December 16, 2012.  Walp allegedly had said that "the bitch (Nelson) better watch her ass or I'll put a bullet in her head and burn the place (District Office) down."  (The disorderly persons complaints that contain the comments allegedly made by Walp are on-line here.  Those complaints were dismissed, with Nelson's agreement, on October 21, 2013.)  She claimed that Walp, who was suspended after the reported threat, came to at least one District meeting at which she was present.

The case is captioned Nelson v. Commissioners of Fire District No. 1, et al, Docket No. SOM-L-232-13 and Nelson's attorney was Gina Mendola Longarzo of Chatham.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Nelson's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $200,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Franklin or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Franklin or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Nelson $200,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.